Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team man Mikko Hirvonen repeated his Rally Sweden win from twelve months ago today as the new era of WRC cars debuted on the ice and snow in Scandinavia.
Hirvonen trailed Mads Ostberg by 14.8 seconds at the close of the opening day on Friday, before grabbing the lead in SS11 on Saturday, a position he would never then relinquish.
Going into the final day it looked like there would be a five-way scrap for P1 with the top five covered by just 15.8 seconds. However Hirvonen almost doubled his lead this morning, with three stage wins on the trot, and while he did lose some ground on the second runs through Torntorp and Rammen - with Ostberg closing the gap to 4.9 seconds - he was 1.6 seconds quicker than the Norwegian in the event closing 'Power Stage'. Consequently he took the victory, just what he needed after a rather lacklustre 2010, when his Sweden win was the only real highlight.
Hirvonen will now be out to prove a point in Mexico next month, but for now he just wants to enjoy what is his 13th WRC win: “I was really nervous before the last stage but what a fantastic start from the team with the new car,” Hirvonen told the official WRC website. “The car has been quick straight away and after a tough season last year I am really pleased with this. But I am not taking this feeling any further. We've won here and now we need to move on to the next round in Mexico where it will be a different game. But I'm very happy with this.”
Mads Ostberg meanwhile was equally chuffed and the 23-year-old definitely impressed on his first outing with the M-Sport Stobart team. Indeed he led for almost half of the event and the runners-up spot – his best result to date in the WRC – was richly deserved.
“We have had a fantastic weekend,” Ostberg added. “I cannot believe that I am second on Rally Sweden. We had the best road position on Friday, yesterday was difficult, but today we felt we could push Mikko hard. I am very happy.”
Jari-Matti Latvala took the final spot on the podium and having slipped to fifth initially this morning, he charged back to claim bronze. “During the whole rally I have made some stupid mistakes so now it feels very good with the podium,” he admitted. “We learned a lot of things. Now I need to calm down and find the correct driving style for this car.”
Behind Sebastien Ogier was fourth, and the Frenchman also took the very first 'Power Stage' win, to claim those three 'bonus' points: “We had some problems with the back of the car; we were sliding all over the stage. Some parts were very difficult. But I am happy to be here. Overall it is good that we took points in Sweden,” he stated.
Petter Solberg, who had been third or fourth pretty much throughout, slipped to fifth in the last stage. Solberg had been caught speeding earlier in the weekend and was given 48 hours before he had to relinquish his driving licence. That meant, somewhat bizarrely, his co-driver Chris Patterson had to drive through SS22, hence they were more than 50 seconds off the pace. "It was my mistake, I need to follow the traffic regulations in every country where I drive," Solberg commented.
Citroen number one and seven-time WRC champion, Sebastien Loeb had a rather poor weekend and had to settle for sixth. He lost out having to run first in the order on the opening day, acting as the snow plough for those behind, and two punctures compounded his problems.
“It has been a very difficult rally,” Loeb reflected. “I lost so much time on the first day. We have pushed throughout the rally though and I have learned a lot about the car for the rest of the season. The changes to the setup that we made before Saturday were very good.”
Per-Gunnar Andersson, who was running in a Fiesta RS WRC paid for by members of his fan club, eventually fought his way back up to seventh. The Swede showed good pace and won four stages, but an error in SS2 and a puncture in SS4 put him out of the reckoning.
“It great to finally finish this rally. What else can I say - an interesting weekend. We try to put it behind us and continue,” said P-G, who has a deal to compete in the IRC this year with Proton.
Kimi Raikkonen began his second season in the WRC with a solid eighth place in his Ice 1 Racing-run Citroen DS3 WRC. The 'ice-man' opted for a cautious start, but increased his pace on day two and three. His best times were one fourth and two fifths. “We spun [a few times] and had some small difficulties but overall it was good. At the end Kimi did a great rally,” said co-driver Kaj Lindstrom.
Britain's Matthew Wilson and Khalid Al-Qassimi took ninth and tenth, the former losing considerable time on the opening loop on Friday with powersteering issues. Patrik Sandell was just outside the top ten in his Skoda Fabia S2000 followed by Martin Prokop, Denis Kuipers and Ken Block. The latter two incidentally took the final few manufacturers' points.
In the Production Car World Rally Championship category, Martin Semerad was the comfortable victor, more than 5 minutes up on Yuriy Protasov. Semerad went into the lead on Saturday, after Anders Grondal retired in SS12 with engine problems.
The only other notable retiree was Henning Solberg. He had been running fifth in his M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC, but crashed out in the first test on day two. He was unable to rejoin under the SupeRally today as the off damaged the rollcage.
The 2011 FIA World Rally Championship now heads to Mexico in a few weeks time, with round two running from March 3-6.STOP PRESS:
To see the result following today's WRC Rally Sweden - CLICK HERE.
To view the latest championship standings - CLICK HERE.